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Vancouver’s History of Independent Grocery Stores Vol. 4

Helena’s Grocery, 1974. Photo: CoV Archives, CVA 1095-02195.

The City of Vancouver archives recently released a new series of digitized Heritage Inventory photos. Predominately from the 1970s, these photos are great because they document the city’s ever-changing streetscape, and feature buildings and businesses that had never before been considered for heritage study. Included in the series are some fantastic photos of small, independent grocery stores with their iconic privilege signs and graphic advertising. Christine Hagemoen tells us all about them in this ongoing series….

Once ubiquitous landmarks in the 20th Century, small family-run grocery stores could sometimes be found along main thoroughfares, but often were deeply embedded within residential neighbourhoods. Grocery store proprietors (who frequently lived on the property) were well known in the community, and would even watch out for all of the neighbourhood kids. Whether they were armed with a list of staples to pick up, a note to buy cigarettes for mom, or some change to buy candy, these stores often gave kids their first sense of independence. After Canadian immigration rules changed in the decades following WW2, many immigrant families saw the corner grocery as a chance to earn a living in Vancouver.

However, since these photos were taken, in the mid-1970s, corner stores have all but disappeared. Supermarkets, chain convenience stores, suburban big box stores and our car-culture changed how people shopped. Starting in the 1980s, amendments to city by-laws and rising property costs sealed their fates. Whatever you called them — corner stores, mom-and-pop shops, confectionaries, grocery stores, or simply “the store” — these places once served as local gathering spaces and encouraged a sense of community. That makes them worth celebrating…

Helena’s Grocery – 6319 Main Street

The 1974 Heritage photo above shows a very attractive front yard store on Main Street at 47th Avenue called Helena’s Grocery. It was named after Helena Mah who operated the store from around 1972 to 1977, along with her husband, P. Q. Hoy Mah.

In 1921, William A. Phillips, a waiter with a department of the CNR (Canadian National Railway), moved into a 1910 era home at 6319 Main St. According to historical building permits, Phillips built his front-yard store in 1926. About eight years later he officially named his venture Phillips Grocery. After the 1939 death of her husband at the age of 49, Mrs. Ellen Phillips became the store’s sole proprietor for the next few years.

It is fortunate that Phillips had the foresight to build his store when he did. Two years later, in 1928, zoning bylaws were introduced to the city permanently prescribing where, when, and how buildings could be built in the city. Building a business in your front yard – once quite common – would now be illegal according to residential zoning bylaws. This front yard business was previously featured in Scout’s ‘Seen in Vancouver’ column on September 8th, 2021.

Emily Blaikie and her bottles. Photo: The Province, March 16, 1959.

In March 1959, this photo of Densmore Grocery Store owner, Emily Blaikie, wielding a carton of empty pop bottles appeared in The Province. The accompanying article relayed how plucky Mrs. Blaike, 39, “routed an armed thug” with a “hail of pop bottles” when he attempted to hold up her store at 6319 Main Street. Emily Blaikie: 1. Armed thug: 0.

From 1979 until at least the late 1980s, the store was rebranded as the Main Market under the proprietorship of Sony Seto. (You can take a look of how Seto’s Main Market looked in 1984 on Flickr here.) In the last ten years this front yard store has been home to a South Asian wedding cards and party supplies shop, and more recently a convenience store called Ma Ma’s Market Ltd.

Unfortunately, the current structure has been denuded of its charming architectural details and is no longer sporting its striped awning and graphic privilege signs seen in the top photograph from 1974.

Helena’s Grocery
Neighbourhood: Main Street
6319 Main St.

There are 3 comments

  1. There is/was a Helen’s grocery on Slocan just south of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic elementary school.
    Very similar structure.

  2. Thanks, Bill. That basic box structure was quite popular at one time.

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